The rules of this top 10 list are simple. I chose from among the movies released theatrically in 2011 that I saw, which means no festival releases that didn't come to theaters, no older movies I caught up with this year, and, obviously, nothing I didn't see. There are some films that I missed that may have made this list (The Arbor, The Interrupters) and a great many more that it killed me to leave off-- 50/50, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Certified Copy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Win Win, Hanna, Higher Ground, Melancholia and Shame would make a perfectly great top 10 of their own. But for better or for worse, here are my 10 favorite movies of the year, painstakingly ranked and described to try and get you on my side. With no further ado….
#1: The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick's long-awaited film arrived like a blockbuster for cinephiles in May, the film you had to see and scratch your head at and complain about parts of while still talking about it constantly. I saw it then and knew it wasn't perfect, but I haven't been able to let it go since-- parts of this movie still come back to me out of nowhere and move me or break my heart. It's a huge and messy exploration of the entirety of humanity, broad enough to include the Big Bang and the end of the world, but minute enough to include the specific fears of a father who wants to be a good man to his children but doesn't quite know how. It's the inescapable movie of the year, and the one I expect to resonate with me many, many years to come. Best Moment: The montage the shows the birth of the planet, and the dinosaurs, and the amoebas, and eventually brings us to Brad Pitt.
#2: Meek's Cutoff
In her quiet, brooding, and sneakily feminist revisionist Western, Kelly Reichardt takes the myth of the wagon train West and strands it in the arid deserts of eastern Oregon, a party of would-be settlers stuck with a leader they don't trust and land that won't sustain them. Told with minimal dialogue, often from the point of view of the women left out of the major discussions, Meek's Cutoff immerses you in the feeling of being lost in the middle of nowhere-- if you want to see that as a metaphor for modern America, Reichardt leaves that door open too. Best Moment: Michelle Williams's character Emily fires off a warning shot with her rifle, and goes through the entire laborious process of reloading-- gunfire meant something entirely different in those days.
#3: The Descendants
Alexander Payne's most tender and emotionally resonant film dives into all kinds of heavy family issues, from infidelity to death to the impossible process of raising teenage daughters, and emerges with a perfectly constructed comedy born from real tragedy. It helps that every single performance hits the mark, and that Payne's Hawaii setting reflects the story's themes of perfect surfaces revealing tricky realities, but The Descendants is simply a rock solid story told well, complicated and awful and sweet in the way we know life to be. Best Moment:Told of his wife's affair, Matt King slips on utterly inappropriate shoes and flop-runs his way to the house of his best friends, who are forced to tell him the truth.
#4: Take Shelter
There are so many things to fear when you're raising a family, from illness and injury and financial ruin to the bigger, impossible to predict things, like floods and mystifying acts of God. Michael Shannon's devoted husband and father Curtis fears all of these things, but is specifically plagued by visions of an apocalyptic storm that feels as real as the more recognizable challenges he's facing. Director Jeff Nichols plunges us into Curtis's paranoia, but equally emphasizes his wife's worries about him (played by the luminous Jessica Chastain); it's a portrait of a family stuck in a slow-building crisis that's strange and unlikely, but like Curtis's creepy dreams, it feels terrifyingly real. Best Moment: Samantha urges Curtis to open the tornado shelter after the storm, and in trusting her, he saves their marriage.
#5: Young Adult
Mavis Gary is an irredeemably bad, selfish and often obnoxious person, but you can't take your eyes off her either, especially not when she's written by someone as smart and insightful as Diablo Cody. Directed with a deliberate lack of style by Jason Reitman, Young Adult burrows deep into Mavis's warped worldview for a deeply engrossing character study that also hits hard on the insecurities and inflated ego we all carry when revisiting the places we grow up. With a fearless and ugly lead performance from Charlize Theron, it's a dark and sometimes cruel comedy that cuts deep and never lets up. Best Moment: The confrontations on Buddy's front lawn.
#6: The Future
Miranda July's first film Me And You And Everyone We Know painted a sprawling portrait of a lot of people looking for connection and love from each other, using a lot of oddball tricks that might have read as needless quirk in the hands of someone less capable. The Future brings back maybe even more quirk-- it's narrated by a cat, for starters, and later features a talking moon-- but its focused portrayal of a long-term relationship that reaches a turning point uses its flights of fancy to only hammer home the odd pain of loving somebody but being terrified of growing old with them. Best Moment: July's surreal, almost alien dance inside a T-shirt that keeps magically expanding.
#7: Attack the Block
Writer and director Joe Cornish travels in the same circles as Edgar Wright, and his debut feature Attack the Block is a warm, funny and perfectly paced spiritual successor to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Set in a low-rent British housing project that's suddenly under siege by vicious aliens, the movie combines lightning-paced action with comedy and surprisingly deft character work, and makes it all look incredibly easy. The similarly themed Super 8 got bogged down in its own Spielberg-loving nostalgia, but Attack the Block writes its own rules, and introduces us to a new filmmaker who promises very, very great things to come. Best Moment: Moses makes his sacrifice.
Two guys pick each other up in a gay club and go home together. The next morning, instead of awkwardly picking up their clothes and leaving, they start a conversation, one that carries through the entire weekend and eventually changes both of their lives. Weekend is a quiet but forcefully observed drama featuring devastatingly naturalistic performances from its two lead actors; director Andrew Haigh, making his narrative feature debut, unfolds his story so carefully and slowly that you'll barely be prepared for its emotional punch at the end. Best Moment: The awkward would-be goodbye after their second meeting.
#9: We Need To Talk About Kevin
Tilda Swinton, the space alien goddess sent to Earth to turn in one unexplainably great performance after another, is at it again here, playing a woman caught unprepared by motherhood, especially given that her son (played by three eerily similar-looking young actors) appears to be an irredeemable sociopath. Told in flashbacks after a horrifying tragedy, the movie is rooted in her point of view so that we're never quite sure that really happened, but it doesn't matter-- her reality is ours, and Swinton and director Lynne Ramsay are so in synch that you can't help but be immersed. Best Moment: Slowly wafting white curtains leading to a back porch spell disaster even before we know what's behind them.
#10: The Adventures of Tintin
Joyous and charming and through-the-roof energetic, Tintin is the Indiana Jones sequel we'll probably never see in live action-- and with the promise of a sequel in the future, we may never need it. Steven Spielberg is set free by the limitless world of motion-capture animation, and without digging into the sentimentality that marks a lot of his work lately (see: War Horse), he creates touching and appealing characters who spend the entire movie fighting bad guys in outlandish situations but never feel hollow or false. It's the kind of pure movie joy that so many people work hard to recreate, but Spielberg makes it look entirely natural. Best Moment: The jaw-dropping car chase done in a single take.
For more of our end-of-the-year coverage, visit our Best of 2011 page.